The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Back to the Future

Now and then, someone complains that environmentalists want to “take us back to the stone age” and I feel compelled to explain why this is not anything we have to worry about. The time has once again arrived.

We’re not going back to any previous time period. History doesn’t work like that. For better or worse, the past is over. We will not somehow fall backwards five thousand years, five hundred years, or even fifty years, forgetting all we have learned and undoing all the changes we have made in the process. For example, turning off the machines of the Industrial Revolution will not reassert the 1700’s and make smallpox magically reappear.

But ending human-caused climate change might well involve adopting some practices from the past. Our lives might come to resemble the way people lived before the Industrial Revolution, or even before the development of agriculture, in certain key ways. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Fossil fuel use gives us a huge amount of energy. Most of the “advances” we have seen in the past two hundred years have not been the result of scientific and social development alone but have also involved a dramatic increase of the amount of energy we harness. Cars don’t go faster than horse-drawn carriages because they are technologically more advanced (although they are) but because they use a lot more fuel. Of course, horses eat hay whereas cars eat gasoline, so it’s hard to make the comparison, but just as a mental exercise consider why we don’t design cars to run on hay.

Basically, hay isn’t a very energy-dense fuel and so a hay-car would need an impossibly large fuel-tank. There probably isn’t enough hay in the entire world to fuel even a modest fleet of hay-cars anyway.

And the massive energy-use is part of the problem. As I’ve explained before, destabilized weather and dramatic biodiversity losses are just what we can expect from using more energy than the biosphere we live in can handle. An enhanced greenhouse effect is the way fossil fuel accomplishes these disasters, but if we invented an alternate way of using too much energy, an alternate path to the same disaster would develop.

So, in the climate-sane future, we’ll use advancing technology to live better on less energy. Greater efficiency will allow us to keep some of our high-energy luxuries, but others will have to go; better rather than more will be the watch-word of the day.

For example, turning night into day across entire cityscapes as we do requires a lot of energy. Even with more efficient lighting, cities that never sleep might have to go. But when people go home at night they need not illuminate their houses with whale-oil lamps as in days of old—they can use LEDs run off batteries charged by rooftop solar cells during the day. LEDs don’t require killing whales and they don’t set fires when they fall over. For the same small amount of energy, they unquestionably do a better job producing light.

But can we look forward to more as well as better?

We can—if we think about what it really means to have plenty. We’re used to thinking of plenty in absolute terms, where a person with thousands of dollars has more wealth than a person with hundreds of dollars. By this logic, a person who wants to have more must go about getting more. And if there isn’t more to get (the approximate situation of modern humanity), that person is stuck.

But in real life we know that’s not how plenty actually works. We know that a person who earns only a few hundred dollars in a week can be in a much better position financially than someone who brings in several thousand if the latter has a lot of unavoidable bills and a large amount of debt. What matters is not so much what you have so much as the relationship between what you have and what you need. It is possible to achieve a state of plenty even with a falling level of income by reducing expenses to the point where saving money is easy.

Think about the difference between a working professional trying to support three children in private school, a stay-at-home spouse, and a home big enough for the whole family, and the same person as a widowed empty-nester living in a small apartment with a modest pension and able to finally go visit Paris.

We can do that as a species in the distant but foreseeable future by radically shrinking our population.

How many people Earth can support is definitely subject to debate. There were certainly those who expected us to have fallen into chaos and horror due to resource shortages by this time and, by and large, they were wrong. I suspect that getting off fossil fuel will require shrinking our numbers (hopefully by attrition), but it’s possible that I am wrong. But trying to identify the maximum number of people who can cram themselves onto the planet—how little we can get by with per capita, in other words—is poverty-thinking. Let’s think about plenty instead.

If our species were, once again, very small—perhaps a few million of us scattered all over the Earth—our per capita Earth-shares would each be very large. So long as we kept our numbers contained and our needs modest, we’d all have more in the way of natural resources than we could ever hope to use. And we’d have some valuable things that money just can’t buy these days. For example, anyone who wanted adventure and freedom could walk out into the wilderness and just keep going as long as they wanted. And that beauty you see in National Parks and on nature specials on TV? It would be everywhere, basically for free.

True, such small population sizes might involve some sacrifice. You couldn’t go see a show on Broadway because New York couldn’t exist. In fact, population sizes like what they had in the Paleolithic might require something of the lifestyle of the Paleolithic.

But that wouldn’t be so bad. Historically, when stone-age peoples have met with so-called “advanced” cultures, they have fought very hard to retain their supposedly “primitive” way of life—these fights continue still. It’s not that these people want to maintain themselves as museum pieces, resistant to change forever—they generally accept steel tools, guns, snowmobiles, and whatever else makes their lives better by their own definition. The point is that there are aspects of Paleolithic (e.g., pre-agricultural) life that are worth more than life itself to the people who have it.

And some aspects are all that climate-sane future humanity would have of the Paleolithic, anyway. We can’t go back, and wouldn’t have to. Some communities might indeed be hunter-gatherers, or subsistence farmers or pastoralists. Horses and oxen and human feet might replace cars and trucks for most purposes. Leather, wood, and bone might replace metal and plastic for daily use. But we’d still have steel when we needed it—there’d be plenty of it available for recycling, just mine a landfill. And we’d still know how to make things like vaccines, antibiotics, and radios. Probably, technological advancement will continue and our hunter-gatherer descendants will be able to do things like replace their internal organs with synthetic ones when they fail.

Just something to imagine next time someone starts talking about the stone age.